Weary Parents, Stand Up for Your Right to Refuel

At a grown-ups only holiday party, I listened begrudgingly as my friends rattled off plans for the winter break. “We’re taking the entire two weeks off and wearing nothing but pajamas,” one friend remarked. “We’re heading to the Caribbean for a 10-day cruise with our girls,” another shared.

Locking eyes across the eggnog table, my husband and I communicated — in our telepathic way of communicating — exactly the same thing: what in the world are we doing wrong? We have three master’s degrees, a Ph.D., and tons of work experience (with proven results) between us. Why couldn’t we take extended time off that holiday?

For our own holiday, we drove eight hours with our little girls and miniature poodle to my parents’ house in North Carolina, where we visited tons of family and friends we hadn’t seen in a while, on top of plowing through intense work deadlines. We had no choice but to pack our laptops among the pile of presents in our minivan — and do what many of today’s parents do over the holidays: work.

While we did our best during the trip to feign a calm, collected composure in the presence of loved ones, truth be known, we were exhausted to the core. We wouldn’t trade time with our extended family for the world, but realistically speaking, how many years could we keep this up?

If you count yourself (like I do) among the millions of parents with scanty vacation time in the United States, then you know what it’s like trying to raise your kids, live your life, and advance your career with little (or no) paid time off. The countless professional development days at our kids’ school, doctor appointments, dentist appointments, snow days, excessive heat days — for many working parents, these eat into an already short supply of "days off," leaving parents like I felt: exhausted to the core.

What, then, can the weary parents among us do? Succumb to spending our child-rearing years without proper time to refuel? Quit our jobs and take whatever vacations we want? (Not recommended, unless you have a hefty savings account that can cover the cost of college when your kids come of age.) What, exactly, can we do? In this first ParentPact blog post in a very long time, I share tips.

1.       Know that you’re not alone.
For starters, it helps to acknowledge that it’s not just you. Vacation time in the U.S. lags far behind the rest of the world. Did you know, for instance, that the U.S. is the only advanced economy on the planet that doesn’t mandate, by law, paid time off? (Don’t tell your boss this. Just use it to help you understand why you’re in this unfortunate predicament.) To put it in perspective, France requires employers to provide 30 paid days of vacation, while the U.K. requires 28 days. Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland) require 25.  

Now consider the U.S.: of the 77 percent of employees who receive vacation benefits, the average paid time off is 10 days a year. Meanwhile, a quarter of employees receive nothing, according to “No-Vacation Nation Revisited,” a report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

2.       Realize that vacation packages have been shrinking.
That’s right. And it’s particularly true of the U.S. private sector. In 1992, for instance, 82 percent of private-sector employees received vacation benefits, compared with 77 percent 20 years later, the latest numbers from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reveal. Drill down more, and the dip deepens, with employers of fewer than 100 workers offering paid vacation to 75 percent of workers in 1992, versus 69 percent in 2012.

Plenty of journalists, bloggers, and social scientists are aware of and writing frequently about the “shrinking vacation” phenomenon, and the need for U.S. workers to “play more.” Educate yourself and stay attuned to the conversation — it will help you get ready for the next step: talking to your boss.

3.       Make a case for paid vacation.
Don’t shy away from asking your boss for more paid vacation. When you do it, use tact and back up what you’re asking for with hard numbers — just as you do when you negotiate salary. Consider, for instance, these stats on average vacation days for private-sector employees, based on years of service, from the U.S. Department of Labor’s latest National Compensation Survey

  • 1 year of service = 5 to 9 paid vacation days/year 
  • More than 5 years of service = 10 to 14 paid vacation days/year 
  • 10 years of service = 15 to 19 paid vacation days/year 
  • 20 years of service = 20 to 24 paid vacation days/year 

If what you’ve been offered falls below average, make this data part of the case you present to your employer. Also pull in other research (there is gobs of it) about the relationship between vacation time and enhanced productivity and job performance, on top of lower rates of stress and burnout. As Derek Thompson writes in an article for The Atlantic, We mistakenly believe that more hours will always increase output, while ignoring the clear evidence: The secret to being an effective worker is not working too hard.”

4.       Ask if you can “buy” extra vacation time.
Sometimes it’s worth going without pay to get the time off you need. And a new approach is making that possible. Here, companies let employees “pay” for paid time off — and even “sell” unused days to colleagues. Let’s say, for instance, that you want to spend a week at the beach with your kids but have no vacation time to spare. With this arrangement, you can buy a week and have it deducted from your paycheck (in a prorated amount) over the course of a year. Likewise, if you don’t use your vacation time, you can sell it to other employees — and get a bump in your paycheck.

Given the tight economic times of the past decade, this approach is gaining traction by employers who understand the importance of flexibility. So whether your company offers it or not, don’t be afraid to bring it up.

5.       Find a more forward-thinking employer.
If all else fails, it might be time for you to find a more forward-thinking employer — one who values what science and research tell us about work in the knowledge economy, instead of relying on obsolete, industrial-age practices. “American management is way behind the science on where productivity and innovation come from, using obsolete, factory metrics and motivational tools,” writes productivity expert Joe Robinson in The Huffington Post. “It’s not the amount of hours on the job, but the quality of those hours that results in productive endeavor in the knowledge economy, where it's not about how much of a pounding you can take but how fresh your brain is.”

Robinson’s thinking, as he duly notes in his article, stems from my favorite writer on the topic of workplace productivity and motivation, Dan Pink. If you haven’t read Pink and are searching for a work arrangement that lets you live your life and do your job, start with his 2009 bestseller, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. And don’t miss chapter four about results-oriented work environments — a perfect set up for driven, self-directed parents.

What are your thoughts on vacation in the United States? Does time off make you better at your job? Share your ideas below.